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What Do I Need to Know about Medicare Enrollment for my Parents?

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Summary: If it’s Medicare enrollment time for your parents, maybe they’ve turned to you for help. Don’t worry – Medicare enrollment is automatic for many people. Even if you have to help your parents sign up, it’s usually fairly easy – you can enroll in Medicare through Social Security in most cases. Where you might have to make a little more effort is helping your parents enroll in the Medicare coverage options that best suit their needs.

Lots of things change when your parents retire; there’s more time for travel, golf, gardening, and naps. Fortunately, Medicare enrollment is often quick and painless, and won’t eat into your parents’ leisure time. If you’re the family go-to for financial advice, here’s what you need to know to help your parents sign up for Medicare.

When can my parents sign up for Medicare?

The first thing to understand about Medicare enrollment for your parents is that they won’t be enrolled together, as a married couple. Each person needs to qualify for Medicare separately, and each person’s coverage is separate from anyone else’s. If Mom turns 65 while Dad is still 62, Mom might be eligible, but Dad’s turn will come later (unless he has a qualifying disability).

  • If your parents are getting retirement benefits from Social Security or the Railroad Retirement Board when they turn 65, they will be automatically enrolled in Medicare. They just need to watch for their “Welcome to Medicare” packets in the mail shortly before their 65th birthdays.
  • If your parents aren’t on Social Security when they turn 65, they’ll need to sign up for Original Medicare (Part A and Part B) during the Medicare Initial Enrollment Period (IEP).

Mom and Dad will each have a separate IEP. This is the seven-month period that begins three months before the 65th birthday month, includes the birthday month, and extends an additional three months. If your parent turns 65 in June, the Medicare enrollment period would be March through September.

Your parents can sign up for Medicare online at the Social Security Administration website, You can also visit your local Social Security office, but it’s a good idea to make an appointment first.

Medicare enrollment: can my parents tweak their Medicare coverage?

Once your parent is enrolled in Original Medicare, Part A and Part B, she may have other Medicare coverage options. It’s generally a good idea to decide what coverage options she wants early on – preferably before her IEP is over.

You may want to help your parent choose what coverage option fits her needs, and sign up for that coverage without delay. Because Medicare coverage is separate for each of your parents, you can focus on what option may meet each one’s health status or preferences. You don’t have to get them to agree on one Medicare coverage option.

Medicare enrollment for Medicare Advantage and Medicare prescription drug plans

Your parents typically have the option of getting their Medicare Part A and Part B benefits through a Medicare Advantage plan. This type of coverage is available through private, Medicare-approved insurance companies. Most Medicare Advantage plans include prescription drug coverage, and many plans offer other extra benefits. Some plans may even cover acupuncture.

If your parent prefers Medicare Advantage over Original Medicare, he can sign up during his Medicare Initial Enrollment Period.

Maybe Dad wants to stay with Original Medicare, but he takes prescription drugs. Original Medicare won’t cover most medications you take at home, so Dad might want to enroll in a stand-alone Medicare Part D prescription drug plan. These plans are available through private, Medicare-approved insurance companies.

You can’t enroll in Medicare Advantage or Medicare Part D through Social Security. If your parent decides on one of these options, you can help with enrollment in the plan. First, compare the plans available where your parents live. Enter their zip code in the box on this page. Then, click the tab corresponding to the kind of plan your parent is interested in – for example, a stand-alone Medicare Part D prescription drug plan. You’ll see a list of plans. From there, you can compare plans – you can even enter Dad’s prescriptions to make sure a plan covers them and look at the costs involved.

Can my parent buy a Medicare Supplement insurance plan?

Medicare Supplement insurance is a type of coverage your parents may want to think about, especially if they have many doctor visits. Medicare Supplement insurance may help pay Original Medicare’s out-of-pocket costs, like coinsurance, copayments, and deductibles.

If Mom wants to buy a Medicare Supplement insurance plan, it’s important for her to know about her Medigap Open Enrollment Period (OEP). This period begins the first month she’s both age 65 or over and enrolled in Part B, and lasts for six months. During this time, Mom has “guaranteed-issue” rights. This means she can buy any Medicare Supplement insurance plan sold in her state, and she can’t be charged higher premiums based on health status.

If Mom misses her Medicare Supplement OEP, she can still apply for a plan anytime she wants. But insurers can refer her application to medical underwriting for approval. If there’s anything serious in your Mom’s health background, she might not be able to buy the plan she wants—or might have to pay a higher premium.

Medicare enrollment: can my parents change plans?

If your parents are unhappy with their Medicare coverage options, they can generally make changes during certain Medicare enrollment periods.

During the Annual Election Period each year, which runs from October 15th through December 7th, your parents can make several changes, such as:

  • Switch from Medicare Advantage to Original Medicare and vice versa.
  • Switch from one Medicare Advantage plan to another.
  • Enroll in a stand-alone Medicare Part D prescription drug plan, switch Part D plans, or drop Medicare Part D coverage entirely.

There’s also a limited Medicare Advantage Open Enrollment Period from January 1st to March 31st each year. During this period, your parents can change Medicare Advantage plans or switch to Original Medicare. If they switch back to Original Medicare, they can sign up for a stand-alone Medicare Part D prescription drug plan.

Your parents may also be eligible for a Special Enrollment Period (SEP) for enrolling in a Medicare Advantage plan or a stand-alone Medicare Part D prescription drug plan. There are certain situations that may qualify your parent for an SEP – usually involving loss of coverage. For example, if your parents move out of the Medicare Advantage plan’s service area or their plan stops operating where your parents live, they generally qualify for an SEP.

If your parents decide to switch Medicare Advantage plans, they don’t need to disenroll from their old plan. This happens automatically once the new plan takes effect.

Here’s one more tip about Medicare enrollment. Medicare Supplement insurance and Medicare Advantage coverage don’t work together. But your parent might be able to drop one of these in favor of the other in some cases.

For example, suppose Dad signed up for a Medicare Advantage plan. If he decides during the first 12 months that he’d rather have Medicare Supplement insurance, he might be able to make that happen. During that first 12 months of Medicare Advantage coverage, he can drop Medicare Advantage and switch back to Original Medicare. He may then have a guaranteed issue right to buy certain types of Medicare Supplement insurance plans. Dad may have 63 days to buy a Medicare Supplement insurance plan after the Medicare Advantage coverage ends.

Are you ready to help your parents compare Medicare plan options? You can do that anytime, anywhere, from a cell phone, tablet, or computer. Just type your parents’ zip code in the box on this page. Then click the type of plan you want to compare.

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